What is a mental block?

A mental block can be described as a psychological obstacle that prevents athletes from performing a particular skill. Mental blocks can be easily confused with performance anxiety, as they both consist of a challenging scenario which arises in sport which forces athletes to either ‘fight’ against the perceived problem, or take ‘flight’ and avoid the scenario. Mental blocks frequently occur in sport, yet many may not recognize they happen as they hold the appropriate techniques to quickly overcome them. Nevertheless, for some athletes a mental block can be something preventing them from progressing in their career and/or development, meaning it’s important to understand the root of a mental block and how to overcome them.

Roots of a mental block

The underpinning factors which explain why mental blocks occur in sport are very much dependent on individual differences, such as focus styles, perceptions and degree of self-confidence and mental toughness.

Focus Styles:

Athletes can be either internally or externally focused (or a combination of the two). Internally focused athletes reach their peak performance when they’re continually focused and immersed into a training session, without any distractions, whereas externally focused athletes perform best when they only focus on sport as and when they are about to start the training session or drill, to minimizing the chances of competitive anxiety arising. It would be thought that athletes who are externally focused may be more liable to a mental block occurring. This is because aspects of the game or exercise become critically, and often negatively, overthought about, which consequentially causes a forced unnatural performance.

Mental Toughness, Self-Efficacy and Negative Perceptions:

Jones (2002) defined mental toughness as having a psychological edge, whether naturally or developed, which allows you to cope with the many demands of sport and be consistently more focused, determined and confident under pressure. It is thought that individuals with a sufficient level of mental toughness adopt approach behaviour to sport and challenges. This would therefore minimize the chances of developing a mental block, as everything would ultimately be seen as a challenge oppose to a threat which may diminish self-efficacy. However, individuals who lack in self-efficacy and/or lack in mental toughness would be more prone to developing a mental block.  In addition, if a mental block is formed there would be a greater chance of avoiding the challenge altogether. This is because self-doubt correlates with low self-confidence, meaning you’re more likely to adopt avoidance behaviour due to the negative perception you hold in regards to your lack of ability.

How to overcome them?

Mental blocks can easily be overcome with the right understanding, support, planning and techniques.

1) Acknowledgement

Many people say that knowledge is power, so recognizing that you are experiencing a mental block is the first stage of overcoming the problem. This is because recognizing that the problem is mental oppose to physical can allow you to SMARTly overcome the problem (check out this article for more details http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/the-process-of-achieving-your-goals-committed-action/).

Within the acknowledgment process, it’s also important to breakdown the possible reasons as what has caused your mental block. Many mental blocks, such as inability to tumble in gymnastics, box jump or shoot may be due to the potential danger which stimulates the ‘flight or fight’ response or because of fear of failure. Sven Goran Eriksson once stated that “the greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure.” In today’s society it’s almost became a social norm to perceive failure negatively (look here to see why it’s not that bad! http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/why-we-should-embrace-failure/).

2) Use your fear positively – make active decisions and create success

When facing a mental block fear of failure should be accepted. Vulnerability should be embraced and “what if’s” should be replaced with “so what’s”. Some athletes fight against their fear, mental blocks and “what if’s” and make an active decision to just ‘go for it’. For some athletes their active decision to face their mental block would be to reduce the challenge to something more accomplishable and slowly work their way up. This is similarly comparable to systematic desensitization, whereby individuals overcome their fears gradually through small steps of exposure. If this doesn’t work, athletes can adapt and transfer the situation which causes your mental block into a different context. For example, if a player struggles to box jump they could attempt dodgeball and be forced to jump away or over the balls. Once this is accomplished, it can be used as a positive scenario for transferable positive mental imagery.

MY EXPERIENCE

An example of this is my personal experience facing a box jump; I can’t box jump! I prepare myself to jump but my feet feel as if they are super glued to the floor. I once even reached a personal best of standing at the box for an hour before having to walk away.

Where am I going wrong? Firstly pessimism is overriding positive self-talk. Saying “I can’t box jump” has become almost routinized, meaning my mind set and perception of my ability is quite negative even before physically attempting a box jump. Physically it’s something I’m probably capable of, but mentally I’m not quite there yet; I don’t have faith in my ability. Achieving a box jump is something I really want to do, so instead of the “what if I get injured”, “what if people laugh at my failure” and “what if I can’t do it – I’m not good enough” is being replace with “so what”, because this is a goal I specifically want to achieve. Mentally it is making me tougher. Nonetheless, because I’m naturally anxious and have a tendency to take ‘flight’ oppose to ‘fight’, just ‘going for it’ may jeopardize my determination due to the likelihood of me becoming externally focused, resulting in becoming negatively self-critical which may minimize my self-confidence and belief. In order to reduce the chances of this happening, I’ll be taking the step-by-step approach. This is particular beneficial as it slowly increases confidence and decreases the fear of failure.

To conclude, mental blocks can drastically impact an athlete’s development, especially if for example the athlete is a diver and they have to perform a particular dive in order to compete at the same level as others. Some athletes have particular assets, whether natural or specifically worked upon, that makes them less subject to a mental block, such as their mental toughness, self-confidence or focus style. Yet overall, a mental block isn’t the end of the world – there are many techniques that athletes can use to overcome a block, and they’re even easier to combat with the help of coaches, team mates or sport psychologists.